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News >  Washington

State budget facing $7 billion hole from pandemic shutdown

May 5, 2020 Updated Tue., May 5, 2020 at 9:44 p.m.

Cherry trees bloom outside the Washington state Capitol in Olympia on Monday, March 23, 2020. By running for a third term, Gov. Jay Inslee has kept more Democrats in place in the 2020 elections but energized Republicans. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Cherry trees bloom outside the Washington state Capitol in Olympia on Monday, March 23, 2020. By running for a third term, Gov. Jay Inslee has kept more Democrats in place in the 2020 elections but energized Republicans. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Jim Camden and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

The economic shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic could blow a $7 billion hole in the state’s budget over the next three years, and the Legislature may be called back to Olympia sometime this year to begin dealing with it.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the prospect of a special legislative session “a probability before next January,” during a news conference in which he announced three new advisory groups to help the state deal with recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

He also called a new federal lawsuit filed by some Republican legislators “biologically ignorant” and that, while the number of new cases of COVID-19 seems to be plateauing at 200 per day, that may be a result of more tests being conducted.

Although the state won’t have a formal revenue forecast for the next three years until June, early estimates say the projections used by the Legislature to create the current budget will be off by some $7 billion for programs and salaries through 2023. The state budgets on a two-year cycle, but the programs in that two-year budget must balance for the next two as well.

Inslee cut some $455 million from the operating budget through vetoes of new programs, and the state has some $3 billion in reserves, he said. But that’s not likely to be enough because the state budget must balance.

“Obviously, this is an enormous hole,” he said.

Three groups will help advise state officials on how to deal with certain aspects of the recovery. One will focus on public health and health care, another on safe work conditions for returning industries and a third to help bolster social supports for such things as safe shelter and housing.

Each group will have a mixture of leaders from government, business and nonprofit organizations, from both sides of the state and with a range of ages and backgrounds.

“Make no mistake. We do know that things will be different as we recover,” Inslee said.

The state is expected to announce by early next week the guidelines for the resumption of auto sales, landscaping and some retail sales with curbside pickup.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, some Republican lawmakers challenged Inslee’s authority to continue his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order and its phased-in approach to restarting different sectors of the economy.

Health experts know more about COVID-19 now than they did in March when the shutdowns began, and while the virus is still a threat to vulnerable populations there is no longer an emergency in the state, their lawsuit contends.

“That should be viewed as great news: we can address the vulnerable population with targeted measures,” the lawsuit says.

“We can declare victory.”

Inslee said he has looked at it “very briefly” but said any suggestion that the spread of the virus was not a crisis would be a surprise to the families of more than 800 people who died from COVID-19.

“I believe that position is biologically ignorant and humanly heartless,” he said. “We had hundreds of new cases just yesterday. … I’m very confident that Washington is on the right track.”

Removing all restrictions now would result in a return of the virus, he said.

The state is seeing about 200 new cases of COVID-19 per day, which hasn’t changed much recently.

“This is where the news isn’t quite as good, you can see that this is data affected by the number of tests being done and who’s being tested,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy told reporters Tuesday. “We started declining in April, but it looks like over the past three weeks, we’ve sort of leveled out around 200 people a day.”

State data show an increase in testing in recent weeks, with more than 6,000 test results coming back in a single day compared to about 4,000 per day at the start of April.

State health officials have set an ambitious goal of having the ability to test around 20,000 people, but difficulties procuring testing kit supplies have created a roadblock, though it is slowly getting better.

“The more people you test, the more positives you get,” Inslee said, though he also noted there is a reduction in the rate of positive results as more tests are given.

Charissa Fotinos, chief medical officer at the Health Care Authority, who is leading the state’s testing efforts, said the state received 37,000 swabs necessary to test for COVID-19 on Tuesday and expects larger shipments of more than 500,000 in the coming weeks.

The state also expanded testing criteria in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s move to expand its list of symptoms in recent days, which could also lead to an uptick in the number of tests administered.

Ideally, health officials want to see the number of new cases reported each day decline more.

“I hope that we can decrease the number of cases that we are detecting as we increase the amount of testing we have to do,” Lofy said. “But we’ll have to wait and see. That’s why it’s important for everyone to stay home and stay healthy.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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